“I had my transplant on my first birthday. My dad gave me a piece of his liver. It’s never going to be easy; you just have to be strong because it will all work out.”
Julianna Reid was born in Hudson, New York, 120 miles north of New York City, in January 1997 to Janell Rossi, a Certified Nursing Assistant. Within just a few weeks of her birth, Janell’s joy of giving birth to her daughter was replaced with abject fear when she realized that rather than an infant’s early jaundice fading, Julianna’s eyes and skin were deepening their yellowed tone. Her stools were white, and, in contrast, her urine was exceptionally dark. And Julianna was losing, instead of gaining, weight.
As soon as the pediatrician examined Julianna, she sent her to Albany Medical Center, where doctors determined she had biliary atresia, a condition affecting one in approximately10,000 newborns. With this condition, the ducts that carry bile out of the liver are dysfunctional, have been damaged, or remain undeveloped causing damage to the liver. The liver’s retention of bile causes scarring and ongoing damage. Little is known about what causes biliary atresia, except that it is not heredity.
Reconstructive surgery at Albany Medical Center sustained Julianna for nearly two months, but ultimately failed. “She was very, very sick, and we were told that she wouldn’t make it to her fifth birthday if she didn’t have a liver transplant,” Julianna’s mother recalls.
Julianna’s doctors at Albany Medical Center contacted Jean C. Emond, MD, who, in 1997, had come to NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center to begin the first multidisciplinary liver disease center in the United States. Julianna was airlifted from Albany Medical Center to Columbia. Dr. Emond suggested to Janell that they try a living donor liver transplant, ideally with a family member as a donor. Janell’s blood type did not match her daughter’s, but her father’s did.
On her first birthday, in January 1998, Julianna received the gift of life from her father, Leonard Reid, becoming the first recipient of a living donor liver transplant at Columbia’s then new liver disease center. Dr. Emond took a portion, about 20 percent, of her father’s liver to replace Julianna’s failing one. For the first time in the first year of life, Julianna had a completely functioning liver. She lost her jaundiced color, and she began to gain weight. Among the liver’s other seemingly miraculous abilities, it naturally regenerates completely in the body of the donor, leaving no hint of deficit. Furthermore, the transplanted section of liver grows and develops along with the child who has received it.
Julianna’s recovery was already evidence of an extraordinary achievement for a one-year-old, and for her family members, but it was just the beginning of an odyssey, which would always lead back to NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia. In 2002, Julianna developed post-transplant lymphoproliferative disease, a condition derived from the use of high doses of the immunosuppression medication cyclosporine, which sometimes produces malignant tumors.
At age four, Julianna was now going for chemotherapy four days a week at Columbia and that would continue for six months. “We went back and forth to New York City by train. The cancer came back in 2006. Julianna repeated the treatments each time,” says Janell. “Dr. Emond, Patricia Harren, Dr. Steven Lobritto, the social workers — they are like family to us. They are awesome. I always believe God gives his hardest battles to his strongest soldiers and they will forever be my soldiers, and I will always and forever be thankful for Julianna’s father, Len Reid.”
Julianna remembers little of that time. But she does remember Dr. Lobritto. “I love him,” she says. “He’s a great doctor.” Two years ago, she had a check-up and a biopsy. It came back perfect.
From the age of six months to this day Julianna still goes to Columbia as needed. “There were so many hard times and times I thought she wasn’t going to make it,” says Janell. “But she pulled through. You have to believe in the hospital.”
Julianna agrees wholeheartedly. “It’s a great hospital. It’s never going to be easy; you just have to be strong because it will all work out.”